Saturday, July 28, 2012

Part IV: Cultural Studies, Feminist Studies, Postcolonial Studies, The New Historicism, and other Anti-formal Approaches

In writing this brief generalized survey of twentieth-century literary criticism, I am giving short shrift to the cultural/historical literary approaches that have dominated academic study from the decline of Deconstruction to the rise of New Formalism.  In its focus on the historical/cultural context or the polemical/political content of the literary work, in my opinion, postcolonial and new historicist criticism, not to mention women’s studies, gay studies, and studies devoted to the writings of Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, etc. have shown more concern for social issues than for the art work.  Consequently, they have shown very little or no interest in the literary short story, which has seldom emphasized social issues.

In his 1986 Presidential Address to the Modern Language Association, J. Hillis Miller called attention to the fact that in the early to mid eighties, the study of literature had a sudden, almost universal turn away from an orientation toward language to “history, culture, society, politics, institutions, class and gender conditions, the social context….”  Miller attributes this shift to the academy’s demand to make itself “ethically and politically responsible” in its teaching and writing—“to grapple with realities rather than with the impalpabilities of theoretical abstractions and barbarous words about language….”   To which Stanley Fish responded in his own polemical 2008 book, Save the World in Your Own Time.

It is not surprising that academics became fed up with theory, for as Frank Kermode pointed out in his 1988 review of Stephen Greenblatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations and Steven Mullaney’s The Place of the Stage--two early and influential examples of the so-called New Historicism--literary theory had reached a point that university teachers of English only seemed to be talking to each other, publishing works with such obscure titles that external observers probably gave up hope. Furthermore, says Kermode, the techniques of deconstruction seemed to have become “indistinguishable from the older kind of formalism only by the use of the patented jargon and by an interpretative liberty that some old fogeys cannot distinguish from license. Thus, the academic call for a return to what “really mattered” in society, or a “return to history,” gave rise to ethnic studies, multicultural studies, postcolonial studies, and the new historicism.

The first and most prominent of these various social or content approaches--Feminist Criticism—was generated out of the so-called Women's Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Feminist Literary Criticism as an academic field of study began with several primary projects. First of all, feminist critics focused on the sexist biases male writers were often guilty of embedding in their works that became unquestioned paradigms of belief in our culture. Secondly, feminist critics argued that the established "canon" of so-called great literary works in Western culture was developed and maintained by males and therefore needed to be expanded to include valuable but previously ignored works by female writers.  Another important project for Feminist Criticism was the establishment of female writers as a "counter-tradition" of literature characterized by a radically different consciousness and value system than those embodied in the so-called "great tradition" of male writers. 

Such critics as Patricia Meyer Spacks in The Female Imagination (1975) and Elaine Showalter in A Literature of Their Own (1977) argued that women writers have often been concerned with matters considered peripheral by men and that they have thus expressed the values of a subculture within the framework of society at large. Perhaps the best-known and most-influential study to focus on what has come to be known as a female literary tradition is The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979) by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who argued that the very idea of authorship and thus literary authority has always been unyieldingly paternalistic.

Whereas Feminist Criticism marked a divergence from modern theory's predominantly formalist approach to literature simply because it was more interested in the social content of the literary work than its form, a group of critics loosely termed the New Historicists mounted a direct assault on the formalist tradition and urged a return to approaches which focus on the authorial "intention" of the work, its socially human referent, and its socio-historical context.

The New Historicism's basic attack against modern literary theory was outlined by Berkeley professors Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels in two articles published in 1982 and 1987 in the journal Critical Inquiry, entitled "Against Theory" and "Against Theory II: Hermeneutics and Deconstruction."  The philosophic basis of Knapp and Michaels' arguments and assumptions are primarily derived from German thinker Hans-George Gadamer, who argued that criticism cannot find a basis for an absolute meaning in a literary work unprejudiced by history; and from his best-known follower, Hans Robert Jauss, who argued that the literary work must be studied in terms of the various historical moments of its reception.

However, the most dominant figure of the New Historicism is Stephen Greenblatt, who introduced the term in an introduction to a special 1982 issue of the journal Genre, entitled “The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms in the Renaissance.” Basically, the New Historicists scorned literary formalism, especially for its neglect of the social and political “context” of literary works.  D. G. Myers, in a 2001 essay in the journal Academic Questions, summarizes the basic principles of the New Historicist method as follows:  (1) Literature is historical; it is not the record of one mind, but a social construct shaped by multiple consciousnesses; “the proper way to understand it, therefore, is through the culture and society that produced it.” (2) Literature must be assimilated to history; (3) There is no such thing as a human nature that transcends history, just as there is no such thing as a literary work that transcends history. (4) No one can rise above his or her own ideological upbringing; since no modern reader can ever read a work as its contemporaries read it, one can only try to reconstruct the ideology that gave rise to it. 

The problem with such an approach is, as Frank Kermode says in his review of Greenblatt’s Shakespearian Negotiations, is that while it unearths a great deal of peripheral detail about a work, it does not seem to evince much interest in the work itself.  As Kermode has it, “There is a great quantity of sexological or political sack, but only a pennyworth of interpretative bread.”  Or as Terry Eagleton says in a November 3, 2011 review of two new historicist studies of the novels of Daniel Defoe:  “Both writers add to our understanding of the social context of Defoe’s writing, but neither would spot a shift in tone, an unreliable narrator or a pattern of imagery if it leapt into their laps.”

Postcolonial Studies, which has been described as part of a larger multicultural educational reform, is said to have originated with the 1978 publication of Edward W. Said’s book Orientalism, which argued that the predominant western approach to what was then called oriental studies, had the effect of maintaining power over Arabs and Islam.  Homi Bhabha, a critic of Commonwealth literary studies, made use of the work of the activist Frantz Fanon to continue the attack against a “Western mode of thought.”  Postcolonial studies became a continuation of sixties and seventies Multiculturalism in America, for the disenfranchisement of racial minorities was called a form of colonization.  While faculty began developing departments on university campuses to teach writings by women, African Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and gays, scholars began to be hired to teach the writings of so-called Third World, i.e. Postcolonial, counties.  The first introduction to the new postcolonial studies, pop- culturally entitled The Empire Strikes Back.

In a brief essay in PMLA in 2003, playfully subtitled “Still Crazy After All These Years,” W.J.T. Mitchell admits that the concept of “form” seems to have outlived its usefulness in discussions of literature. However, in spite of the fact that so many literary scholars and academic critics think they have moved beyond formalism into “more capacious arenas like history, culture, and politics,” Mitchell thinks that formalism, like other discredited notions such as imagination and beauty and spirit, keeps returning.  Mitchell concludes that although the old notion of form “some new notion of form, and thus a new kind of formalism, lies before us.”

And that “new notion of form,” for lack of a more imaginative term, is beginning to be known as the “new formalism.”  Perhaps the best-known review of the new formalism is the long essay by Majorie Levinson in the “changing profession” section of the March 2007 issue of PMLA, entitled “What is New Formalism?” [An even longer version of this review, which is the version I have read, is available online at: 

Levinson begins by suggesting that new formalism (she does not capitalize the phrase) is “better described as a movement than a theory or method.”  She divides new formalist studies into two groups: those who want to restore to historical criticism its original focus on form (which she calls “activist formalism”), and those who wish to bring back a sharp division between history and literature (which she calls “normative formalism”) Both kinds of formalism, however, she says want to “reinstate close reading,” which she defines as a “multilayered and integrative responsiveness to every element of the textual dimension.”  The central work of new formalism, Levinson says, is “rededication” to the idea of form, noting that words common to several of the essays are “commitment,” “conviction,” “devotion,” and “dedication.”

Next week, I will try to provide a brief history of the new formalism, evaluate its significance, and discuss why it may be important to my book-in-progress.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

New Formalism and the Short Story--Part III: Structuralism, Reader Response Theory, and Deconstruction

My thanks to Tim Love for raising an important issue about the relationship between literary criticism and literary fictionTim wonders if theory influences student writers directly, or if it affects the zeitgeist, making editors more likely to take on certain types of writing.

It’s a good question, especially now that there are so many creative writing/MFA programs alongside literature departments in American and British, universities, making the connection between criticism and creative writing all the more possible.  Kelcey Parker, in her essay (which I mentioned last week) on the relationship between the rise of creative writing programs and the concurrent rise of the “New Formalism,” discusses this issue, and I will come back to it next week when I attempt an examination of links between the “new formalism” and the “old formalism.”

However, as I think about the relationship between what has been taught in university literature classrooms in the twentieth century and what has been written by short story writers, at least in America, I do see a general correlation, although I am not sure which came first—the theory or the story.  For example, during the 1940s and 1950s, when Formalism or New Criticism was the dominant academic approach to literature, the dominant short story form was the so-called “traditional” or “well-made” story, e.g. the stories of John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Peter Taylor, Katherine Anne Porter, Bernard Malamud, etc. When structuralism and deconstruction were enjoying a brief heyday in the 1960’s, the self-reflexive stories of William H. Gass, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and John Cheever interested academics. I am not sure what brand of criticism can be correlated with the so-called minimalism of Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolfe, Ann Beattie, etc. in the 1970s. But when cultural and ethnic criticism became popular in the academy, a number of writers representing various cultures also became popular, e.g. Sandra Cisneros, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, Aleksandar Hemon.  I will come back to this question next week when I make a leap over culture criticism to the “new formalism.”   But, for now, indulge me in an admittedly oversimplified summary of Structuralism, Deconstruction, and Reader Response criticism.

Taking its initial cue from Russian Formalism, Structuralism began as a reflection of the need to understand literary criticism as a unified scientific field of study rather than the practice of the explication of individual works of art.  Concerned not with meaning but more generally with what makes meaning itself possible, Structuralism gets its most powerful and immediate impetus from the methods of modern linguistics as developed primarily by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. The seminal document of modern Structuralism is Course in General Linguistics, a collection of Saussure's lecture notes edited by some of his students, originally published in 1915 but not translated into English until 1959.

The central ideas of Saussure that have proven most useful to literary theory by the Structuralists are fairly easy to summarize, although their implications have proven highly complex and controversial.  Saussure's basic assertion was that "language" should not be thought of simply as a horde of those words we use with which to communicate.  Instead, language is made up both of individual utterances (which Saussure called parole) as well as the general system of language that makes such individual utterances possible (which Saussure called langue). Although individual utterances make up the governing system of language, they do so not as an aggregate of utterances, but rather as an elaborate system of generative principles. 

Furthermore, the individual "sign," such as designated by a single word in a language, is also made up of two parts.  First, there is the sound that we make when we utter the word "house"; then there is the concept we have in our minds when we utter such a word.  The sound image Saussure calls the "signifier," whereas he calls the mental concept the "signified."  What is important to remember about these two notions is that there is no intrinsic or "necessary" relationship between the two.  There is no essential quality of "houseness" inherent in the sound we make when we say "house."  The relationship between the two is purely arbitrary and conventional; it results from the tacit agreement of those who belong to a certain speech community that such a sound image will signify such a concept.

The final distinction Saussure made that has become important to the study of literature is the distinction between studying a phenomenon, such as language or literature, as it develops over time, (which Saussure calls a "diachronic" study) and studying it as it exists at any one given moment in time (which Saussure calls a "synchronic" study).  These two approaches for studying a cultural phenomenon are related to the realization that all utterances and other examples of sign systems communicate simultaneously in two different ways: first along the linear, time-bound axis, as the sentence, "the dog bites the boy" communicates by the syntactic relationship between the signifiers "dog," "bites," and "boy"; and second along a vertical, spatially-fixed axis that exists tacitly for each of the signifiers in the string on the basis of similarity of function.  For example, the signifier "dog" could be replaced by "cat," "snake," "lion," in short anything that might plausibly perform the same function as the signifier "dog."  The linear relationship between the signifiers in the string is called the "syntagmatic" relationship, whereas the spatial relationship is called the "paradigmatic" relationship.  The first is governed by the principle of contiguity or combination of signifiers, whereas the second is governed by the principle of similarity or substitution.

In Fundamentals of Language (1969), Roman Jakobson suggests that the distinction between the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic corresponds not only to the two basic ways that simple linguistic chains signify, but also two basic means by which larger units of linguistic chains such as literary works signify.  All discourse, says Jakobson, communicates along two lines of meaning: one topic may lead to another through the process of combination based on contiguity, or else a topic may lead to another through the process of substitution based on similarity.  The first corresponds to the trope known as "metonymy," whereby something is suggested by something else contiguous to it; for example a doghouse may "stand for" a dog because a dog lives there.  The second corresponds to the device known as "metaphor," whereby something is suggested by something else that can be substituted for it; for example a dog can be referred to as an animal, a pet, man's best friend, a pest, etc.

The first significant attempt to use the linguistic approach to apply to a signifying phenomenon other than language itself was the effort by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss to understand myth. In his most familiar discussion, "The Structural Study of Myth," a chapter from his 1958 book Structural Anthropology, Levi-Strauss laid out an approach to myth that has since been used for the study of literary fictions.

Myth is story, says Levi-Strauss, made up of basic constituent units or distinctive features that share similar functional traits.  However, these units are larger than the units of phonemes or morphemes that make up language; thus Levi-Strauss calls them "gross constituent units," and terms them "mythemes."  After breaking down the myth into mythemes, or units based on similarity of function, Levi-Strauss then determines how these units are related to each other in what he calls "bundles of relations."  He then reads the myth not in terms of one event after another in a causal-chronological relationship, but rather in terms of the logical relationships between the various sets or "bundles."

In this way, Levi-Strauss breaks down the syntagmatic flow of the myth based on contiguity, groups the resulting motifs together into paradigmatic sets based on similarity, and then reads the paradigmatic sets in terms of their logical relationships.  The result is, as Roman Jakobson stated in his famous 1958 "Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics," similarity is imposed onto contiguity and thus equivalence is made the constitutive device of the sequence. In other words, the syntagmatic, which is "just one thing after another" and therefore meaningless, is transformed into paradigmatic sets made up of units based on similarity which communicate by logical relationships.  Levi-Strauss's method has served as the model for further studies of literary narratives as if they were structured the same way language is.

Structuralist critics have been primarily concerned with various ways to extrapolate from the study of language a method for the study of literature.  The most basic way they attempted to do this in the 1960's was to treat literature as a second-level language system above language itself.  Although a poem or a story is made up of language and thus can be broken down into such units as phonemes and morphemes, Structuralists made use of Saussure's ideas of the distinction between langue and parole to refer to a distinction within literature itself between the individual work of art (parole) and the system of genre (langue) to which it belonged, or else between the genre (parole) and the larger system of literature as a whole (langue). Carrying this approach even further, they suggested that literature was not only made up of language, it was "like" a language in many other ways as well.  The field of study that has made the most extensive use of such linguistic approaches is the field that Structuralism may be said to have invented--narratology.

Drawing their inspiration initially from Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale, such narratologists as A. J. Greimas, Claude Bremond, and Tzvetan Todorov were concerned with identifying the fundamental elements of narrative and their laws of combination.  Perhaps the most familiar to Anglo-American readers is Todorov, whose collection The Poetics of Prose, translated in 1977, made his approach easily accessible.  Basically, Todorov reduces the action in individual stories to a basic syntactic summary and then analyzes that summary by focusing on active verb forms in the stories such as "to change," "to transgress," "to punish," etc.  It has often been pointed out that whereas such an approach works most effectively with highly formalized works such as stories and tales, it works least effectively with more "realistic" works such as the novel.  The Structuralist approach to narrative, claim many of its critics, drains the human content out of literary works and then deals only with their mathematically pure, linguistic-like, structure.

Reader-Response Theory

 Because of this refusal to deal with the human origin of the work, its human content, or its human effect on the reader, the Structuralist approach was challenged almost as soon as it began by critics concerned with the "subjectivity" of literature, particularly with the subjective involvement or response of the reader.  However, there are two distinct sources for literary criticism that focuses on the reader--the phenomenological theory derived from Edmund Husserl and the psychoanalytic theory derived from Sigmund Freud.  The first has often been called "Reception Aesthetics," whereas the second has been termed "Transactive Criticism." 

The Phenomenologists criticize such linguistically-based approaches as Structuralism because they try to fix invariant patterns in literary works and thus abstract the human being out of the work's concrete experience.   The subtlest spokesman of Phenomenology's interest in understanding the subjectivity of literature from the inside rather than objectively from the outside is philosopher Paul Ricoeur.  However, Ricoeur's discussions of how meaning is created in The Rule of Metaphor (1977) and how history is like narrative in Time and Narrative (1984) have had less effect on literary criticism than European Reception Theory introduced in German in the late 1960's by Hans Robert Jauss.

Making use of Husserl's basic notion that one perceives reality through an abstract structure of expectation (termed "horizons"), Jauss argues that to study literary history, the focus should be on the reader's literary horizons, that is, the structure of generic norms the reader has internalized as a result of all previous texts he or she has read.  Following this same approach, Wolfgang Iser, the best-known spokesman for Reception Theory now in the United States, focuses on reading as a dynamic process during which the reader continually fills in what Iser calls "gaps of indeterminacy" in the text--gaps which are there because the art work never completely corresponds to real objects.  Iser's reader is not one who brings his or her unique experience to the reading experience, but rather is what Iser defines as an "implicit reader," one who alters the self to fit the kind of reader that the work requires.  This simply means that the reading experience is a dynamic interchange with the text, not a passive experience; the person you are for the time you are reading Huckleberry Finn, for example, is not quite the same person you are when you read The Scarlet Letter.

Another well-known advocate of reader-based criticism is American critic Stanley Fish, who has called his approach to literary texts "Affective Stylistics."  Like Iser, Fish's notion of a reader is not one who brings to the text all the individualities that define him or her in everyday life, but rather is what some have called a "superreader” who interacts with the text in a highly-sophisticated rhetorical way.  Fish says that the so-called "objectivity" of a text is a dangerous illusion; reading, and thus the text itself, constitute a temporal, not a spatial, experience, as Formalists, Myth Critics, and Structuralists say that it is.  A sentence, for example, argues Fish, is not an object, but an event, something that happens to, and with the participation of, the reader.  Fish says that in his method of analyzing a work, he monitors the temporal flow of the experience as it is structured by what the reader brings with him or her, and thus he can chart reader response as one that develops in time.

In contrast to Phenomenologically-based Reader Response Theory, which focuses primarily on the reader's general and rhetorical expectations as he or she reads the work, psychoanalytically-based Reader-Response Theory focuses on the reader's specific response based on his or her unique personality or identity.  The best-known advocate of this brand of criticism, sometimes called  "Transactive Criticism" or "Buffalo Criticism," because it originates from State University of New York, Buffalo, is Norman Holland.

Holland's first major theoretical book, The Dynamics of Literary Response (1968) came at a time when new Criticism's explication of individual poems was beginning to pale on critics and students and when much psychoanalytic criticism up to that point, influenced both by Formalism and Myth Criticism, had degenerated into the simple interpretative task of searching for dream or myth symbols in literary works. Holland argued that Freud's theories, particularly in his study of wit and jokes, offered the basis for a general theory about the dynamic transaction between reader and text in which basic interests or themes in the reader's personality "constructed" themes in the text.

Thus, like Fish, Holland urges that texts should not be studied as objects but rather as dynamic transactions between readers and texts. Holland argues that by means of literary form, (which works like defense mechanisms in human beings) and by means of literary meaning (which works the way sublimation does in human beings), literature can transform unconscious desires in the reader into a higher aesthetic, intellectual, and moral unity.  This unity, which exists not just in the text, but which is created by the needs of the reader, is what the critic should focus on.

The second most familiar critic within this psychoanalytic-based reader-response tradition is David Bleich, whose first book, Readings and Feelings: An Introduction to Subjective Criticism (1975) had a major impact on the way literature is taught in the classroom, particularly the high school classroom, in the United States.  His more substantial theoretical book, Subjective Criticism (1978), criticizes Holland for focusing too much on the objectivity of the text, as the New Critics did, and instead offers a radical new "subjective" paradigm of thought which is based on epistemological issues of how one "knows"; consequently, he connects psychoanalytically-based Reader- Response Theory with some of the issues that have dominated phenomenologically-based theories about the reader.


 It is an interesting irony of modern criticism that even as Structuralism was being introduced to American critics in 1966 at a conference at Johns Hopkins University entitled "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man," a relatively unknown philosopher named Jacques Derrida delivered a paper entitled "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" which was already seriously challenging Structuralism.  In this milestone essay, Derrida challenged the basic assumptions of Structuralism as illustrated by Claude Levi-Strauss; then in a series of important, but often dense and unreadable books published in the following year, On Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena, he further undercut Structuralism's philosophic foundations as established by Ferdinand de Saussure. His approach, which has come to be called "deconstruction," is to analyze such thinkers as Levi-Strauss, Saussure, and Edmund Husserl in such a way as to show that their own arguments undermine themselves and thus create a basic contradiction which itself is the key to understanding.

As a result of Derrida's critique of Structuralism, the movement never really got started in America.  Moreover, by the time it was introduced to English-speaking critics, its most influential advocate in Europe, Roland Barthes, had already begun to offer his own challenging critique primarily in his work S/Z (1970).  Whereas in his earlier critical statements Barthes, like other Structuralists, had appealed to a general structure, something equivalent to Saussure's notion of langue from which one could derive an analysis of an individual text or parole; in S/Z Barthes analyzed a short novel by Balzac as being a work which instead of having a single parole-like system governed by its dependence on a large langue-like system, is a system in and of itself.  Barthes argued that there is no transcendent or primary model equivalent to langue, but rather that each text is traversed by numerous codes which constitute its meaning.  The implication of this shift is that if that the text does not have a meaning determined by a transcendent code it may have numerous meanings which are created by the reader as he or she applies the various procedures demanded by the multiple codes that traverse it.

However, it is Derrida's challenge to Structuralism's assumptions of a transcendent code that has had the most powerful impact on contemporary literary theory.  In his 1966 presentation at the Johns Hopkins Conference on Structuralism, Derrida challenged the methodology of Levi-Strauss on the basis of what he called Levi-Strauss's tacit nostalgia for a central and transcendent "presence" or "fixed origin."  Derrida exposes the Kantian basis of Structuralism and dismisses as a fiction, albeit a functional fiction, the apriori mythic consciousness on which all forms of Formalist criticism, from the Russian Formalists to the Structuralists, had depended.

In referring to Saussure's influential distinction between signifier and signified, Derrida argued there was no transcendent signified to which a signifier referred, but that a signifier referred only to other signifiers in an endless play of signifiers.  Derrida insisted that the Structuralist endeavor was based on what he called a "metaphysics of presence," that is, some hypothetical mythic moment when signifier and signified were intrinsically related and indivisible. Derrida has claimed that this illusion is damaging, for it allows us to avoid dealing with the reality of our fragmentary reality on the assumption that there is some unified, pure meaning or reality that can be grasped.  According to Derrida, everything is a mediated "text"; there is nothing outside of the text, and all that texts can refer to are other texts.

In a related move, Derrida dismissed the assumption of linguistics that writing was secondary to and derivative of oral speech, for this, he said, was just another version of the "metaphysics of presence."  To believe that writing is secondary to speech is to believe that although writing is a highly-mediated sign system that one must interpret, its source is in speech, which, by comparison is unmediated, and thus its truth is immediately knowable.  Derrida argues, however, it is an illusion to think that truth is apparent at the moment of speech.  In fact, once it is shown that speech is susceptible to the same distance and difference from meaning as writing itself is and thus not a primary source of truth, then writing can be studied as the model of what Derrida calls a "metaphysics of absence," which allows for the "free play of signifiers."  According to Derrida, there has never been an original source; there has never been anything but a string of substitutional signifiers in a chain of differences on to infinity.  The most basic implication of Derrida's approach for literary criticism is that if a work can have no ultimate meaning it can have limitless meanings.

It is this basic implication that American followers of Derrida, primarily the so-called "Yale School," which includes Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, Paul De Man, and Harold Bloom, most took to heart.  Although these critics differ in many particulars in terms of their engagement with the ideas of Derrida, basically they all proceed on the assumption that the notion of referentiality is an illusion.  A sign, says J. Hillis Miller, marks not the presence of, but the absence of, an object.  All the world is a text in which there are not facts, only interpretations.  Similarly Paul De Man argues that what reading reveals is the confrontation with a language that always vacillates between the promise of some referential meaning and the rhetorical subversion of that meaning.  Only Harold Bloom differs in his approach by focusing on the problem of literary history from a psychoanalytic point of view.  Although he agrees that every text is an intertext, he argues that literary history is the history of the clash of the strong personalities of young poets in conflict with powerful previous poets or precursors.  Literature develops by means of purposeful "misreadings" by present poets of previous ones.

Structuralist and Deconstruction theories about the nature of literature have also been integrated into two of the most pervasive and powerful models for the analysis of human experience in Western culture--Marxism and Psychoanalysis. Although both of these models were guilty of reductionism when first used by literary critics in the early part of the 20th century, more recent approaches to Marxism, derived primarily from the so-called Frankfurt School of social theorists, and more recent explorations in psychoanalysis, derived from the work of French analyst Jacques Lacan, have attempted to make use of the linguistic revolution to better understand Marx's critique of society and Freud's creation of the unconscious.

The best-known Marxist theorists of the Frankfurt School are Theodor Adorno, its chief aesthetician, who argues that the greatness of the art work is that it allows those things to be heard which ideology conceals; and Louis Althusser, who urges that critics lay bare the author's "problematic," that is, the unconscious infrastructure or base of his "potential thoughts" which make up the existing "ideological field" within which he works.  Pierre Macherey makes the connection between Marxism and Structuralist and Post-Structuralist theories even more obvious in A Theory of Literary Production, originally published in Paris in 1966 and translated into English in 1978.

For Macherey, criticism is not explication, nor is literature mimetic.  Criticism is a form of knowledge; its object is not the literary work, but rather a product of literary criticism itself.  Whatever phenomenal reality is revealed by the literary work has no prior existence but is rather the product of the laws of the work's production; the task of criticism is to reveal these laws.  In an effort to connect the concept of "ideology" with linguistic theories about structure, Macherey argues that ideology cannot be reduced to a set of concepts; ideology is, in fact, the tacit internalized realm of structures itself.  It is this realm of the unsaid and the unsayable that makes the said possible.  For Macherey, the task of criticism is not to try to articulate the unsaid, the so-called latent meaning, but rather to lay bare the laws of the production of the said.

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, strongly influenced in his reading of Freud by Saussure and Levi-Strauss, argues that the unconscious is structured like a language and therefore needs to be understood linguistically.  However, he begins to sound more deconstructive than structuralist in his approach when he argues the signifier is privileged over the signified and that the child's early ego development is based on an illusion of wholeness and totality which obscures the reality of one's fragmentary self.  Rivaling Derrida in the complexity and density of his ideas and his prose style, Lacan's theories, which have been termed "French Freud," have had a profound influence on psychoanalytic approaches to criticism in America.   The journal Yale French Studies has been most instrumental in disseminating the views of Lacan primarily in the writings of such critics as Shoshana Felman, Peter Brooks, and Barbara Johnson, who have offered new Lacanian psychoanalytical approaches to Henry James, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Throughout the 1970's, the American Deconstruction critics, Hartman, DeMan, Bloom, and Miller carried on a vigorous defense of deconstruction against more traditional critics, primarily in the most important journals of modern literary theory, such as Critical Inquiry, New Literary History, and Diacritics. As might be expected, traditional critics have accused deconstructionists of being subjective, relative, unreadable, and perversely contradictory.  And indeed, if one follows Derrida's line of thought and rejects any ultimately absolute meaning, then literary analysis becomes justified not on the basis of its truth-value but rather on the basis of whether it is interesting.  Deconstruction critics do not strive for some final reading of a work, but rather attempt to present an engagement with the work that indeed rivals the work itself for its fictionality and imaginative structure.

It is this ultimate divorce, not only from historical and social referentiality but also from any responsibility either to the world or to the text, that has lead to a reaction against Deconstruction in the 1980's that marked a return, although a return with a crucial difference, to the view of literary works as cultural documents of political and historical significance—a reaction to which gave rise to the Formalist or New Critical revolution the 1940s and 1950s in the first place. 

Finally, whew!  an examination of the “New Formalism” next week

Thursday, July 19, 2012

New Formalism and the Short Story--Part II: New Criticism and Russian Formalism

Although I have no intention of including these summaries of the development of literary criticism in the twentieth century as an introduction to my book on the short story, I do feel it is necessary to go over this material for my own benefit (and perhaps for the interests of my blog readers), if for no other reason than to provide some context for my own approach to the short story. 

Such a critical context is especially crucial since some key assumptions of my approach have been scorned by university professors and academic critics in the past few decades, namely “formalism” and “genre” study--not to mention the fact that the short story itself has never been considered a worthy subject for “serious” critical analysis.  Although I am not writing the book for high level academic critics, who still seem professionally committed to some nebulous and ill-defined idea of “theory” and “culture,” I still must make my book acceptable to them--at least, (most horrid word in the academic lexicon), not critically “na├»ve.”

In preparation for an examination of the so-called “New Formalism,” what follows is a brief summary of some of the key concepts of the “old Formalism,” or the old “New Criticism,” or what some call “Contextualism”—concepts that I still find valuable for reading the short story.

The New Critics not only insisted that the literary work was independent of the writer, they also felt that the work was independent of the reader.  One had to be careful not to impose his or her own values on the work, but to allow it to establish its own rules for being read.  The assumption was that the work was a highly unified object that communicated something significant about human experience by the very choice, arrangement, and balance of its individual parts; the reader could discover this meaning by reference to nothing more than the poem itself.

However, although the New Critics thus argued strongly against both the "Intentional Fallacy" and the "Affective Fallacy," they should not be confused with the "art for art's sake" belief commonly associated with poets and critics of the late 19th century in England and Europe.  New Critics were indeed interested in the content or theme of the work. It is just that they felt that the work’s theme was too complex to be some discursive idea purposely placed within the work by the author that could be plucked out by the reader like a raisin from a cake.  The Anglo-American Formalists felt that literature reveals truth in a way substantially different from other discursive forms.  Whereas science focuses on truth in terms of abstractions or generalities, literature deals with truth in terms of concreteness. Because experience is more complex than the abstractions of scientific language will allow for, literature is more "true" and more "complex" in its use of language than science.

According to W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., the complexity of a work's form is an indication of the sophistication of its content.  And in a central essay on the subject entitled  "The Language of Paradox," Cleanth Brooks argued that whereas the scientist wants to freeze language into widely-agreed upon denotations, poetry is always breaking up these agreements in perpetually new ways.  The primary device for achieving this constant break up is metaphor, and metaphor, argued the New Critics, is by its very nature always ironic and paradoxical.  Thus the values sought after in poetry by the New Critics were those of complexity, irony, tension, and paradox.

The New Criticism's method of getting at the meaning of literary works was so powerful between the 1930's and the 1950's that it dominated college English classes all across the United States.  And indeed for all its theoretical statements it was less a theory of literature than a method of interpreting individual literary works.  It had little to say about what characterized literature in general or what relationships existed among literary works either past or present; it only spoke strongly about how to explicate an individual poem or story.  Ironically, this shortcoming was criticized by a book published in 1949 that is perhaps the high point of Anglo-American Formalism--Rene Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature.

Although Wellek and Warren were indeed more committed to Formalist criticism than to any other mode of critical thought outlined in their survey of critical approaches, they also were aware that the New Criticism had failed to understand literature as a whole.  In what should have been a foreshadowing of the critical invasion of structuralist and phenomenological approaches twenty later, Wellek and Warren summarized and cited many European efforts to develop a unified theory of literature.  However, because many of these efforts were still not translated into English and because of the firmness with which New Criticism had hold of the English and American Humanities intellectual establishment and academic community, these new ideas about a poetics of literature were not to gain much recognition until the late 1960's.

It is an interesting coincidence of modern literary theory that while T. S. Eliot and I. A. Richards were laying down the basis for the brand of Anglo-American Formalism that was to dominate criticism up through the 1950's, a group of critics in Russia were working independently to develop a body of Formalist principles of literature which was not to become highly influential until the 1960's and 1970's.  The major work of the Russian Formalists grew out of two groups of critics--the Petersburg Opoyaz group and the Moscow Linguistic Circle.

            When Formalist approaches to literature were politically discouraged in Russia in the late 1920's, Roman Jakobson, an important member of the Moscow group, left Russia to become a founding member of what was to be known as the Prague Linguistic Circle. As a result, Jakobson is the crucial connecting link between Formalism of the 1920's and Structuralism of the 1960's.  Another important member of the Prague group, Rene Wellek, has already been mentioned as being partially responsible for introducing some Russian Formalist ideas to American critics in 1948 in Theory of Literature.

Like the Anglo-American New Critics, the Russian Formalists were primarily concerned with determining the principles by which literature could be distinguished from non-literature.  And the central principle, as expressed in a 1917 essay by Victor Shklovsky entitled "Art as Technique," was that of "defamiliarization," or the process of "making strange."  According to Shklovsky, as human perception becomes habitual it becomes automatic and our thought processes become abbreviated and algebraic until we attend to the world of objects only as abstract shapes.  Art, however, says Shklovsky, exists so that we can recover the "sensation" of life which has been lost to habit and abstraction.  The way that art does this is to use literary conventions, or "devices," to make objects "unfamiliar" and thus to increase the difficulty and length of perception, for perception is an aesthetic end in itself. The purpose of art, insisted Shklovsky, in what is perhaps the key assertion of the Russian Formalists, is to experience the "artfullness" of the object; the object, that is, the work's referential content, is not so important.

The theories of the Russian Formalists have had important implications for the study of literary history, for the study of the structure of fiction, and for the study of genre.  For example, the notion of literary "devices" or "conventions" made it possible for critics to talk about literary history as the evolution of genres.   Poetic forms, argues Roman Jakobson, evolve as a result of shifts in the relationships between the components that make up a generic system.  Historical shifts take place when elements that were once considered primary become secondary in this hierarchical system or when elements that were once taken seriously are parodied by "foregrounding" or "laying bare" the devices that communicated them.

The Russian Formalist focus on purely literary devices is what primarily distinguishes it from Anglo-American Formalism.  Whereas the New Critics were primarily interested in how technique revealed the thematic aspect of individual literary works, the Russian Formalists were often interested in technique for its own sake.  For example, one of the most famous Russian Formalist essays on an individual work, Boris Eichenbaum's essay "The Making of Gogol's Overcoat," clearly illustrates the difference between the two Formalist schools.  Whereas the American Formalists would be interested in how the technique of the story reflects the ironic theme of Gogol's story, Eichenbaum argued that Gogol did not wish to present a certain type of theme or content; rather he simply used the theme of the little man at the mercy of incomprehensible social forces as an excuse to create a literary style based on a particular kind of Russian folktale.

In short, whereas for the American Formalists the technique of the work existed for the sake of discovering its theme, for the Russian Formalists, the theme of the work existed simply to make possible the author's "play" with technique.  For this reason, the Russian Formalists were drawn to works in which the technique was particularly obvious, works which bared their devices and thus referred to their own process of being written.  Thus, for the Russian Formalists, the 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy, which frequently calls the reader's attention to the fact that he or she is reading a novel instead of observing a mirror image of reality, is the most typical and most novelistic of all novels, for it takes as its subject matter the process of story-telling itself.

However, the Russian Formalists’ notion that perhaps gave most impetus to the Structuralist movement of the 1960's and 1970's was their approach to the study of fiction as a structure of individual motifs.  According to Formalists Boris Eichenbaum and Boris Tomashevsky, when approaching fiction one must make an initial distinction between the series of events which a writer takes as his subject matter and the specific structure that results when the writer presents the completed piece of fiction to the reader.  Although one may be tempted to think of both these series of events as the same, the former is merely the raw material, whereas the latter is the transformation of the raw material by means of purely literary conventions or devices.  The former concept has been often translated as fabula or "story," whereas the latter concept is referred to as sjuzet or "plot."

The second Russian Formalist notion of fictional structure that later proved highly influential is the notion of a "motif" as being the smallest particle of thematic material in a story.  Such motifs, the irreducible building blocks of a story, are contained within individual sentences, e.g. "the boy left home," "he met an old man," "they entered a cave," etc.  Whereas the fabula is merely the aggregate of these motifs in a causal-chronological order, the sjuzet is the organization of the motifs in strategically justifiable ways that the Russian Formalists call "motivation."

This approach means that a group of works hypothetically of the same type or genre can be broken down into their various motifs or smallest meaningful particles.  Then these particles can be rearranged in terms of their similarity of function or purpose so that more general similarities of the structure of the genre as a whole can be determined. Basically, this is what the Russian critic Vladimir Propp did in his influential study Morphology of the Folktale, which, although first published in 1928, did not become well-known until translated into English in 1958.  Working with a limited number of folktales or fairy tales, Propp broke the tales down into units based on their shared motifs.  He argued that different motifs describe different actions or "functions" that re-occur in the tales even though the characters and their attributes may differ. Although there may be numerous motifs in Russian fairy tales, Propp argued there were only thirty-one different functions in such tales.  Such an approach to the study of the generic elements of fiction became one of the central approaches of 1960's and 1970's Structuralism.

Next:  Structuralism, Reader Response, and Deconstruction

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

New Formalism and the Short Story: Part I: The Modernist Background

I have been working regularly on my new book on the short story—tentatively titled Reading the Short Story, aka How to Read Short Stories, and hope to finish a draft within the year and send it out to seek a publisher.  The audience I am writing for is the kind of audience I seem to have attracted for my blog:  intelligent, educated writers, readers, and students of the short story.  Although I plan to make the book theoretically sound enough to convince literature professors who have previously ignored the form that the short story is worthy of serious study, I intend to write it in a clear and concrete style that will be accessible to a wide range of readers.

Since the short story is, like poetry, highly dependent on form, and since in the last few decades, a “formalist” approach to literature has been derided by theorists and cultural critics, I must not only establish, but I must also justify, my own approach to the short story--which has always been and will continue to be, formalist.

Literary criticism in the twentieth century has followed certain trends depending on what aspect of literature is most emphasized, e.g. the author, the historical context of the work, the form of the work, the philosophical justification of literature, literature’s relationship to other human studies, the social content or intent of the work, etc.  Usually one aspect will be emphasized in the classroom and in academic critical studies until established professors tire of it and introduce a new emphasis to graduate students, who get their degrees and then teach that approach in the classroom and publish their own articles to build a respectable resume that will earn them tenure and promotion, and sometimes fame and fortune. 

Then the cycle begins all over again.  For example, long before there was a “new historicism,” there was an historical approach to literature that provided historical and cultural background for the work, biographical background of the author, and casual discussion of the work’s content and/or theme.  However, some critics begin to think this approach was neglecting the actual way the work of literature “worked,” that it, its form.  Thus, a “New Criticism” developed, often called “formalism.”  When that reached a point of focusing so much on individual trees that the forest—i.e, literature as a general enterprise—was lost sight of, formalism mutated into structuralism and deconstruction and various other high level philosophic approaches.  When that became so rarified that much of the theory became unreadable, the cry went up for a “New Historicism,” which was something like the “old historicism, but with a difference—the difference being all the formalism and theory that had come betwixt and between. When that became too focused on the historical details, the cry went up for a focus on the political and social importance of literature—thus culture studies, ethnic studies, gender studies, queer studies, etc. 

It only seems inevitable, given this action/reaction development of literature criticism that the time is now ripe for a “New Formalism.”  And, what, pray tell, is that?  What is “new” about the new formalism that differentiates it from the “old formalism” that used to be the “new criticism”?

Last month, I received a blog comment from Kelcey Parker, a college professor and fiction writer at Indiana University, South Bend, who has an article forthcoming in a collection, New Formalisms and Literary Theory  (edited by Linda Tredennick and Verena Theile, Palgrave Macmillan), in which she argues that the renewed interest in Formalism and the rise of New Formalism corresponds directly to the rise of creative writing in English departments, for creative writers always read and think and teach in formal terms.  It is a good argument, and I will come back to it later.

As an unrepentant “old formalist,” I am, of course, interested in the so-called “new formalism” and asked Kelcey to send me a copy of her essay, which I have read with much interest.  I have also been reading other articles on the “new formalism,” such as W.J.T. Mitchell’s essay, “The Commitment to Form” in 2003, Marjorie Levinson’s long article “What is New Formalism” 2007), the essays in a 2000 special issue of Modern Literary Quarterly, and several other pieces.  I plan to do further research on the “New Formalism” in the weeks ahead and report on my findings here.  However, I thought it best to establish the groundwork for my readers by providing a brief and simple survey of the “old formalism.”  This summary is intended for the educated general reader, not the super theorists who so often become entangled in the complexities of their ideas and the convolutions of their prose that they become unreadable.

Twentieth-century literary theory began with an effort by English and American critics to understand and justify literature as a type of discourse essentially different from other discourses such as those of the physical and social sciences.  It may at first appear to be obvious that a poem or a story differs from a psychological case history or a scientific report.  After all, both kinds of discourse can use the same words and sometimes even the same sentence patterns, and both kinds of discourse make statements about some phenomenon, sometimes the same phenomenon.  For example, a book on the history of whaling in New England may make some of the same kinds of statements that Herman Melville's Moby Dick makes. 

However, most readers feel that somehow the "purpose" to which language is put in poetry is different than the purpose to which it is put in a psychological report.   Moreover, most readers feel that the statements in a novel "refer" to something different than the statements in a history book; whereas the first refers to a "made-up" world, the second refers to a "real" world.  Finally, most readers feel that in some way the "effects" of statements in a scientific or historical discourse are somehow different than the effects of statements in poetry.

Such issues as these are not as simple as they at first appear.  Indeed, before the beginning of modern literary theory's efforts to understand and to justify literature as different than other kinds of discourse, literature was often felt to be secondary to other verbal forms; literary works were studied as historical documents which played cultural roles, or else they were studied for what social content or philosophic theme they seemed to contain and communicate.  Modern literary theory, beginning primarily with the great modernist British poet and critic T.S. Eliot, changed all that forever.

This is not to say that everyone before T. S. Eliot believed that literature, particularly poetry, used language the way other verbal forms did.  For example, the 19th-century British poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge noted that poetry differed in an essential way from other kinds of language use, for its purpose is a unique kind of pleasure that results from the reader's perception of the intrinsic unity of all its parts.  And in America, Edgar Allan Poe argued strongly that both poems and short tales depended on a highly unified structure to communicate their singular effect. This point of view became even more pronounced at the end of the 19th century with the advent, especially in England and Europe, of the so-called aesthetic school of poetry, which insisted that a poem was important for its own sake, not because it contained important ideas. 

Actually, what T. S. Eliot contributed to this development of a particularly "modern" notion of literature was a group of critical pronouncements about literature's uniqueness that crystallized the views of other poets and thinkers.  For example, Eliot suggested that art is more concerned with expressing emotion than the logical ideas on which other verbal forms focused; furthermore, Eliot argued, the only way of expressing emotion in literature is by means of a verbal "objective correlative," a set of objects, a situation, or a chain of events which, even though it seemed to be made up of mere concrete, sensory details, served as a verbal equivalent of the emotion.   This idea that poetry communicated meaning by means of concrete detail rather than by means of abstractions was an important step in the critical effort to establish that poetry used language differently than other forms of verbal communication.

Eliot's perception that the language of poetry was unique was soon followed by the arguments of British critic I. A. Richards that the kinds of "statements" poetry used were different than those in other forms of discourse. In Science and Poetry in 1926, Richards noted that although poetry does make statements, they are not statements that have to be verified as they do in scientific forms; they are instead "pseudo-statements," which are justified not because they correspond to the facts they point to but rather because they serve the attitudes of the speaker or organize the attitudes of the reader.  The "truth" of poetry is relative to the perspective of the speaker; it does not depend on its correspondence to that which it seems to refer.
     These and other ideas of Eliot and Richards found their way into American criticism primarily due to the enthusiasm and efforts of a small group of teachers and students at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.  Lead by John Crowe Ransom, a young faculty member at Vanderbilt, the group included Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks. Although Ransom was the first to use the term "New Criticism” in a book of that name in 1941, the circulation of the central ideas of what also has been called "formalist," "contextual," or "objective" criticism was mainly due to the publication of two highly influential literature textbooks in the 1930's by Brooks and Warren: Understanding Fiction and Understanding Poetry.  In addition to these texts, other important books to develop the New Critical approach were Ransom's The World's Body (1938), Tate's Reason in Madness (1942), Brooks’ The Well-Wrought Urn (1947), and William K. Wimsatt's The Verbal Icon (1954).

Next Week:  The New Critics and the Russian Formalists

Monday, July 16, 2012

Robin Hemley's REPLY ALL and the Problems of Short Story Publishing

Among all the hard-working writers out there writing short stories, only a few ever place a story in one of the mags that actually pay real money, e.g. New Yorker, Harpers, Narrative, Granta, etc.  Most short stories appear in independent or university sponsored journals that have a small circulation list and are read, when read at all, in university library reading rooms.

 If any of these struggling short story writers are fortunate enough to get a collection of stories accepted for publication, few get published by the big presses with well funded publicity departments, e.g. Norton, Harcourt, Knopf, Scribner, Grove, etc., appearing instead under the imprint of an independent or a university press with little or no publicity money.

If the stories of these hard-working writers do not appear in the relatively large-circulation magazines and if they are not picked up by big publishers with money to promote them, then they are not apt to get reviewed by the big newspapers, or even the small newspapers, for that matter.  Now that many newspapers have cut back their book review sections and practically eliminated their tiny budget for free-lance reviews, many good collections of short stories go unnoticed and therefore largely unread.

Some publishers have expressed hope that literature-loving bloggers might take up the slack left by dwindling newspaper reviews and get the word out about their books.  Every once in a while, I get an email from a small independent or university press, asking if I would be interested in receiving a review copy of a new collection of short stories. 

A few weeks ago, I got an email from the good folks at Indiana University Press, asking if I would be interested in receiving a review copy of Reply All, a new collection of stories by Robin Hemley.  This is Hemley’s third collection of stories, although he is perhaps better known as the author of several books of essay.  He is a senior editor of the Iowa Review and directs the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

Although I had never read any of Robin Hemley’s stories, for some reason his name sounded familiar to me. I was almost finished reading the eleven stories in the collection when I remembered.  Back in 1963, when I entered the fledgling Ph.D. in Literature program at Ohio University, the university hired a new editor of the also fledgling Ohio University Press.  His name was Cecil Hemley, who, thanks to the Internet, I have found out was Robin Hemley’s father.  Sometimes it takes considerably less than six degrees to close the space of separation.  Cecil Hemley, who died when Robin Hemley was seven, was a poet and novelist, the editor-translator of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and a cofounder of Noonday Press.

I did some searching on the databases Lexis Nexis and Newsstand for newspaper reviews of Hemley’s new book and found none—not even in the small newspapers.  I did some additional research on the Internet and found little there either.  Hemley is best known as the author of a memoir of his schizophrenic sister, Nola, and several books of nonfiction, including a manual on how to turn your life into fiction.

This is his biography on his Amazon Author page:

Robin Hemley, born May 28, 1958 in New York City, is a Jewish American nonfiction and fiction writer, author of eight books, most recently, Do-Over! In which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom, and other embarrassments (Little, Brown, May, 2009). His other writing includes Turning Life Into Fiction (2006), Extreme Fiction: Fabulists and Formalists (anthology, with Michael Martone, 2004), Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday (2003), Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness (1998), The Big Ear, stories (1994), The Last Studebaker, a novel (1992), All You Can Eat, stories (1988), and The Mouse Town, stories (1987).

This is his biography from his web site:

Robin Hemley is the winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on DO-OVER!. He has published seven books, and his stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and many literary magazines and anthologies. He is the editor of Defunct magazine. Robin received his MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop; he currently directs the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa and lives in Iowa City, IA.

The eleven stories in Reply All originally appeared in small magazines, the best known perhaps being Southern Review and Shenandoah.  A few have been reprinted: “Reply All” appeared in New Sudden Fiction; “The Warehouse of Saints” was reprinted in Best American Fantasy, and “The 19th Jew” won first place in the Nelson Algren Award and appeared in Jewish American Fiction:  A Century of Stories.

I read all eleven stories twice—enjoyed them the first time, but felt relatively indifferent the second time.  What interests me about the stories is why they did not interest me on that second reading.  Related to this question is the additional question of why Robin Hemley, relatively well known by other writers (The two sound bites inside the front cover by Robert Olen Butler and Melissa Pritchard are, as far as I can tell, “reviews” as Hemley’s web site identifies them, but rather requested prepublication blurbs), is not a short story writer well known by lovers of the short story—including me.

The stories are “fun” to read.  This is indeed a book small enough and light enough (in both weight and content) to take to the beach this summer. And indeed, maybe that is why I enjoyed them the first time but not so much when I read them more closely.  Maybe some short stories are not meant to be read so closely.  For example, the title story is a little “what if” piece about a guy who sends a passionate illicit love letter to a woman, but accidently sends it as a “reply all” to an entire listserv of a group called the Poetry Association of Western Suburbs.   “Dead Silence” is about a talk show that interviews dead people.  “The List” is a take on one of those deadly Holiday information letters that some folks send to all their friends about all the wonderful things their family has achieved during the year.

Not all the stories are just for fun. “The Warehouse of Saints” is about a father and son who collect and sell duplicate relics of Saints until Joan of Arc exposes the scam.  “The 19th Jew” is about the complications that take place when a university search committee tries to fulfill the school’s minority hiring requirement.  “Redemption” is about the ghost of a fundamentalist preacher haunting a couple in their new house.

Hemley’s stories are clever, well-written, and a pleasure to read. I recommend them for your light summer pleasure. Perhaps Hemley intended nothing more than that.  However, for serious short story admirers, they lack that sense of authorial engaged obsessiveness that demands serious reading.  And they also lack the kind of authorial confidence in the reader that makes for great short stories; perhaps because he is more of an essayist than a short story writer, Hemley just explains too much.

Ironically, this book will not be read by many serious readers of short stories (and is there any other kind?) because it is too “light.” But because it is published by a university press that has no funds to promote it as good summer reading by newspaper reviewers, it will probably languish in a kind of “no reader’s land.”  That’s unfortunate, but, given the current economy of publishing, probably inevitable.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Frank O'Connor Award: 2012--A Few Final Words

Well, it is Independence Day in America and I am celebrating with my family by braving the barbecue grill—complete with corn on the cob, baked beans, roasted spuds, and piled-high hamburgers.  That will mean extra time on the Wii exercise board tomorrow.  I prepared for the day, ironically, by watching the first episodes of two PBS series last night on the telly—“Queen and Country” and “Michael Woods’ History of England.” I will sit in my yard tonight and watch my neighbors set off illegal fireworks in the cul-de-sac to celebrate the fact that America is the country that put the “post” in postcolonial.  Ah, land of the Free!

Meanwhile, in the lovely city of Cork, on the west coast of Ireland—our postcolonial partner--the winner of the Frank O’Connor Award for the Short Story will be announced.  I would love to be there.  The last time I was in Cork—four years ago—I was so sick I thought I would die and thus spent more time in bed coughing than at the pubs drinking, as any good visitor to Ireland should.

I have no idea what instructions the judges for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award are given.  All I know is what the O’Connor website states—that the aim of the yearly prize is to “reward an individual author’s commitment to this most exacting of forms and encourage the publication of collections of stories in book form as distinct from single stories in periodicals.”

Self-styled the world’s greatest cheerleader for the short story, I think that is a most admirable aim.  But if this is meant to be guidance for the judges, then does it not seem somewhat ambiguous?  Are the judges really to choose one book out of six that most reflects an author’s commitment to the short story?  Or are they instructed to choose the book they think is the “best” of the six shortlisted stories? 

If the former, does that mean that Etgar Keret, the author (according to his promotional material) of six best-selling short story collections, has made a stronger commitment to the form than Sarah Hall or Lucia Perillo, for whom this is their debut collection?  If the former, is the “best” collection of the six the one that best reflects the “exacting” nature of the short story?

Since the winner receives 25,000 Euros, which is roughly equivalent to 31, 570 American dollars (“the single biggest prize for a short story collection in the world”) and since one of the stipulations of the prize is that the publisher of the winning book put a “Winner of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award Prize” sticker on the cover, thus insuring increased sales of the book, these are not trivial questions.

I have done my best to discuss the six books honestly—laying bare my personal biases and underlining my critical criteria.  If you have read my essays on the six shortlisted collections, you may be able to determine which one I would choose—were I a judge.  But since I am not a judge, it little matters which one I think shows the strongest commitment to the short story or reflects the generic characteristics of exactness.

If I were to group the six collections in order of my admiration and pleasure, I would rank Dark Lies the Island, The Beautiful Indifference, and Suddenly a Knock on the Door in the top half.  I would, sorry to say, put Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, and The Trouble with Fire in the bottom half. 

If I were a judge, which one of the top three would I choose as winner of the Frank O’Connor Award?  It would depend on the criteria the contest sponsors had stipulated and the other judges and I agreed upon, for it seems to me that you cannot engage in the joint judging of a work of art unless everyone is applying the same criteria.  If I were asked to pick the collection I like best, it would be Dark Lies the Island.  If I were asked to choose the one that shows the strongest commitment to the short story, it would be Suddenly a Knock on the Door.  But if I were to choose the collection that, in my humble opinion, best reflects the poetic exactness and complexity of the genre, it would have to be The Beautiful Indifference.

I hope all the attendees at the Cork Conference have a grand time celebrating the short story, and I extend my best wishes to the six shortlisted nominees for the prize. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Frank O'Connor Short Story Award Shortlist: 2012-- Kevin Barry's Dark Lies the Island

Kevin Barry, Dark Lies the Island, Jonathan Cape.

I started this series of blogs on the six shortlisted collections for the 2012 Frank O’Connor Award by reminding myself that I must be alert to what governs my reaction to a new story I read:  Do I like, or not like, a story for personal reasons, or do I like, or not like, a story for critical reasons?

I start this final blog in the series by admitting right up front that Kevin Barry’s collection Dark Lies the Island is my favorite of the six shortlisted books, but I quickly admit that it is my favorite for personal reasons, not necessarily for critical reasons.

I enjoyed Barry’s Dark Lies the Island because:

*I have lived in Ireland and love the people.

*My wife, whom I love best of all people, is Irish.

*I love John Jameson, Bushmills, and Guinness.

*I love a good laugh.

*I am, God help me, a male, with Appalachian mountain blue-collar roots.

What I like best about Kevin Barry’s stories is the voice I hear when I read them.

“Voices! I hear voices! A story comes to me, most often, from a scrap of talk, from something overheard or just caught on the fly. It’ll be just a line or two, something that on the surface might seem meaningless, but it’ll buzz about in my head for a few days, like a trapped wasp, and if it doesn’t go away, I know that I have to write it away. This is usually how a story is triggered for me.” (Kevin Barry)

And voice (and by “voice” I do not mean what reviewers mean when they say a certain writer is the “voice” of his or her culture.)  has always been an important part of storytelling in general and Irish storytelling in particular.  Here is the first paragraph of Frank O’Connor’s classic study of the short story, The Lonely Voice:

“By the hokies, there was a man in this place one time by the name of Ned Sullivan, and a queer thing happened him late one night and he coming up the Valley road from Durlas.”

Kevin Barry’s stories have a more modern sound to them than this, and they are post-Chekhovian written stories--what O’ Connor called “a modern art form” and therefore represent “better than poetry or drama out own attitude to life”--but they still cling to Irish storytelling as a sort of public art form with a distinctive voice.  Indeed, the best commentary I could write about Barry’s stories would be simply to quote a number of sentences that made me smile, shake my bemused head, or just laugh out loud…and have another drink.

Chris Power, one of England’s most knowledgeable and sensitive short story readers, wisely points out that “short-story writers are often talented phrasemakers, but only the best ensure each phrase is as hardworking as it is attractive.” He points out that one of the important characteristics of Barry’s style is that “phrases of sudden lyricism or savagery explode unexpectedly from banks of more conversational prose.”  Power calls “Ford of Killary” “the highlight” of an excellent collection, urging that, as in any great story, “ every element works in unison,” blending Barry’s “muscular comic gift” with his attempt to “portray sincere emotional shifts.”  Power also likes the prize-winning “Beer Trip to Llandudno,” (won the £30,000 Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award) which he compares to the stories of the “great and shamefully neglected V.S. Pritchett,” who uses the comic for compassionate ends. Amen to that.

Most reviewers call attention to the “male” appeal of Barry’s stories. Helen Davies in The Sunday Times calls “Beer Trip to Llandudno” a “great, lusty, bear hug of a story celebrating that rarest of relationships in literature: male friendship.”   John Burns, also in The Sunday Times, says “There’s a blokey feel to many of the stories, and you sense male readers will get a bigger kick out of the drinking, dryhumping, and general coarseness.”  Burns calls Barry the “most exciting Irish short story writer of his generation” and compares him to Trevor and McGahern. (Easy now!) Holly Williams in The Independent also calls attention to the “blokishness” of many of the stories, balanced by a “masculine romantic idealism.”

Keith Ridgeway in The Irish Times puts his finger squarely on the genius of Kevin Barry:  “Kevin Barry is fearless. Reckless…. The language is a welcoming roll of robust, swaggering banter, punctuated by bright points of quietness and subtle precision…. He is a rogue. He’s shameless.”

Yes, I agree.  When I read Barry, I realize why I could never be a great short story writer.  I just don’t have the nerve for it.  Take, for example, the opening story, “Across the Rooftops,” a romantic wisp of a thing that serves as an unlikely introit for the revelry to follow (Barry may be a rogue, but he is not a lout), and take this sentence:  “My heart opened and took in every black poison the morning could offer.”  I would never try to get away with a sentence like that, but that old roguish romantic Kevin Barry pulls it off (no double entendre intended).

It is with the second story, “Wifey Redux” that we get Barry, still the romantic, having a good time with the voice of his male narrator, a “moderately poetical” guy who has, what he calls in the first sentence (pace Tolstoy), a happy marriage, to a wispily slight woman who cannot pronounce the letter “R”—a rabbit was a wabbit—“which made her even more cute and bonkable.”  The narrator gets panic-stricken when his seventeen-year old girl starts dating a guy with a mid-Atlantic twang that doesn’t even sound Irish any more.  When he asks his wife what the two are doing under a duvet in July, she, not so concerned, says, “I think we can pwesume that she’s jackin’ him off.” When the guy dumps the daughter, the tide turns and our valiant hero finds a hilarious way to make it right and express his frustration.

“Ford of Killary,” one of my favorite stories in the collection, is about an English poet who buys a hotel and pub in Connemara, on the west coast of Ireland between counties Galway and Mayo.  Of course, it is an economic disaster, but the poet calls himself the “last of the hopeless romantics.”  The clientele include such colorful characters as Mick Harry, the distributor of bull semen for the vicinity and his enormously fat wife Vivien, who, if not controlled, are apt to go at it up against the pub bar. “The people of this part of north Galway are oversexed,” says the narrator.  “I had found a level of ribaldry that bordered on the paganistic. It goes back of course.  They lick it up off the crooked rocks.”  The context for the story is a terrific storm that floods the fjord of Killary, with water running into the ground floor of the hotel, forcing the hilarity and drinking upstairs to a room with disco lights.  And so they dance the night away on the fjord of Killary.

The other great blokey story in the collection is, of course, “Beer Trip to Llanndudno,” in which a group of guys in the Real Ale Club (who meet five or six nights a week in quest of the perfect ale) make their July outing to a seaside resort in Wales.  “There are those,” the narrator says, who’d call us a bunch of sots but we don’t see ourselves like that.  We see ourselves as hobbyists.”  These boys just want to have fun, and they have a harmless quality to their perceptions, e.g.:  “A lively blonde familiar with her forties but nicely preserved, bounced through from reception.  Our eyes went shyly down.  She took a glass to shine as she waited our call.  Type of lass who needs her hands occupied.”  When they have a conversation on “what’s the best you ever had,” it is about ale. Loveable man-children all.

Not all the stories are as irresistible as these three. But these are so funny and good natured and so well told that if you take away only them from Dark Lies the Island you will be well served and apt to laugh so hard the tears will run down your leg. God knows, a good laugh in this economy is a rare thing indeed and something for which we can be grateful.

So what do I think is the best book of short stories among the six shortlisted?  Give me the Fourth of July to think about it; I need a hot dog and a couple of beers. The good judges at Cork will announce their choice for a winner of the big bucks on July 5.  Wish I could be there to make those beers Guinness.